Discrimination and Ethnic Nepotism

We all discriminate all the time. As Walter Williams says (via Stefan Karlsson),

“When I married Mrs. Williams, I discriminated against other women. Even though I occasionally think about equal opportunity, Mrs. Williams demands continued discrimination.”

Chris Dillow asks, “Why do people identify so much with their ethnicity?”

One argument is that a bias in favor of one own’s ethnic group is an example of kin selection. A map of a person’s ancestors is not a tree, but a bush, where everyone in an ethnic group is related to everyone else, possible on average as closely as first cousins. Identification with one’s ethnic group is therefore rational and makes perfect sense in evolutionary terms.

Another argument is that it is more efficient to work with someone belonging to your own ethnic group. If you share a common language and a common set of values, it is much easier to evaluate how far you can trust another person.

Here is a report in ScienceNOW Daily News on a recent study,

“When it comes to nepotism, people from indigenous tribes are not so different from you and me. Given the choice between punishing a fellow tribesman or a member of a neighboring tribe for the same crime, New Guinea natives protect their own, according to new research. The study suggests that favoritism knows no cultural boundaries.


An abundance of research has shown that people tend to give preferential treatment to others who are genetically similar to themselves, whether they’re actual blood relatives or simply share an ethnic background. But most of this research has been done in Western countries.

To see if the behavior extended to indigenous people, economist Helen Bernhard of the University of Zurich in Switzerland and colleagues had two New Guinea tribes play a money game. Each round had three players: a “dictator,” who starts out with 10 Kina (equivalent to wages for a day’s labor) and can give any of the cash to the “recipient,” and a “third party,” who acts as the enforcer of societal norms. He or she must decide how the dictator should be punished if that person hasn’t shared fairly with the recipient. To make the dictator turn over an additional 3 or 6 Kina to the recipient, the third party has to spend 1 or 2 Kina of his own.

A series of 65 games was played with various combinations of members of the Wolimbka and Ngenika tribes, who live 30 kilometers apart. Both tribes are accustomed to sharing their resources in an egalitarian fashion within the group. The investigators found that if all players were from the same tribe, the third party punished the dictator every time he shared less than half his money with the recipient. If the dictator were from a different tribe, he received even more punishment for being stingy. For example, if the dictator only gave 4 kina to the recipient, he would receive little or no punishment if all three players were from the same tribe, but the third party would pay more than 1 kina to punish the dictator if he were from a different tribe than were the other two players. If the recipient were the outsider, however, less than 1 kina would be spent to punish the dictator even if he gave nothing to the recipient. If the third party were the minority tribe member, the outcome would be similar, the researchers report in the 24 August issue of Nature.

The study demonstrates “ethnic nepotism,” says altruism researcher Philippe Rushton, a psychologist at the University of Western Ontario in Canada. It’s been shown many times, he says, but looking at the phenomenon in indigenous Papua New Guineans “is novel and attention grabbing, and it goes beyond the usual gaming experiments” by using indigenous subjects rather than undergraduates in a lab.”

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4 thoughts on “Discrimination and Ethnic Nepotism

  1. But consider whether the survival chances of members of a group of humans in crisis is increased or decreased by group association. For every heroic Shackelton, never leaving a man behind as they cross the frozen floes, I can offer the delayed response of those on a fireline as the mountain starts to blow up below them and seconds count in an individual race to the crest ahead of the flames. The analysis that proves your rule lies in the exploration of who tended to survive in those open whaleboats after the sinking of the Whaleship Essex – it was the Nantucketers first, the Cape Codders, next, and the African Americans at the bottom rung and the first to go. But one can also look at this Washington Post article http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/09/10/AR2006091000830.html paints a different picture of survival chances in which group behavior limits the odds of individual survival.

    One of many interesting observations from the WP: ” One study after the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center found that group size was a significant factor in determining how quickly people exited the building after a van loaded with explosives went off in an underground parking lot: Individuals who were part of larger groups, such as large workplaces, took longer to escape than individuals who were part of smaller groups.”

  2. The two worst wildland fire disasters in the US during the 20th century, in terms of loss of firefighter lives, were the Mann Gulch Fire in the late 1940s and the Storm King Mountain Fire in the mid 1990s. Both situations involved firefighters working upslope of a fire that blew up and overan them as they tried to make it up the ridge.

    In the first case, documented hauntingly in the book Young Men and Fire, the group took too long to decide to drop tools and run, moved largely together and obliquely while the flames surged to intercept them, and did not comprehend the individual actions of the one man who lit an escape fire and lay down in the black and survived being burned over. Two individuals did not run with the group and took the shorter, steeper route over the summit, barely making it over the crest. 4 in the group ran heroically near the end -they are called “the four horsemen” in post fire analysis – but by sticking with the group were just too slow to escape. They were all elite smokejumpers, trained to work together.

    The Storm King Fire had some of the same elements as Mann Gulch. The crew were hotshots, also elite firefighters. While other factors besides terrain and weather conditions contributed to the disaster, some of the same group vs individual responses to disaster played out. The only survivors from the doomed fireline were those who dropped tools and ran on their own initiative, outpacing the group. Those fast runners in the middle of the pack were slowed by those ahead of them, and the crew leader stayed near the end to help the stragglers.

    There are many cases where going it alone rather than relying on the group may lower survival chances. But here are two examples, and the trade tower evacuations may be a third, where individual survival chances were lowered because of perfectly understandible group response to disaster and the delay that accompanies it.

  3. Pingback: Modern Heresy - Talk Britain - The Voice of Britain

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